Saturday, January 12, 2013


“If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.”
----Sent-ts’an, 700 BC

I like that quote though I’m still discovering what it means. It reminds me specifically of the sociopolitical climate in the United States. Being away from the US, even in the UK, has been a breath of fresh air because though we have divisive politics and polarising contention in the UK, it is not to the extreme as that in the U.S. I’m reminded about the moderation of John Stewart in trying to steer the U.S. away from the media-framing dichotomy of “left” and “right” or “black” and “white” or monotonous dipolarism of the 24/7 news cycle.

I can’t remember a topic when there were only two sides, two views. I can’t remember a platform, party, or group that ever fully represented all of me. I can’t remember enjoying any group I was not allowed to question while simultaneously being a supporter. We seem to have popularised and supported the two-sided debate not just in our politics but also in our news coverage of any story, even in the classroom, even over the dinner table. If ever there was an amazing example of a successfully pervasive educational campaign, the infiltration of the dipolar debate into all aspects of society is a perfect case study. Sadly, especially in society’s news, it dehumanizes a rather colourful rainbow of citizens with varying concerns, investments, and most importantly various stories.

In learning to recognize the range of opinions, socioeconomic options, and political choices, you have to recognize that the two sides “conservative” and “liberal” often speak from differing moral bases. I saw a great talk on TED a few years ago by psychologist John Haidt who talks about the five different moral value roots: harm/care, justice/equality, authority, loyalty, and purity/sanctity. What I’ve often seen is that you have two people: John and Sarai. John, operating from a moral basis of justice and care for others, tries to convince Sarai of some policy like universal health care. But Sarai’s moral basis is more about purity, authority, and loyalty. She may understand justice and care for others but she may rank them lower below other moral values. However, John not realizing this, continues to huff and puff to no avail. Finally, after Sarai still doesn’t see his point, he walks away exasperated, fatigued, and more confused than ever before. They both seek good but through different moral value rankings.

Someone who values security much more than justice or fairness would be willing to treat people unfairly as long as it keeps society safe. Someone who values justice, fairness, or equality more important than security would be willing to treat people the same, impartially, even in insecure times. Some people think security comes when you treat people (especially the insecure, whether its food insecure, energy insecure, water insecure, etc.) with fairness and justice and love. Everyone has different ranking systems.

So John Haidt astutely shows how people labeled as “conservatives” tend to register and understand all five of those broad moral values (justice, care, authority, loyalty, and purity) while those labeled as “liberals” tend to understand the first two mostly (justice and care). Therefore “liberals” are usually at a disadvantage in such exchanges because they have difficulty in understanding arguments by “conservatives” based on authority, in-group loyalty, or purity whereas “conservatives” have a much broader value channel. This causes problems when communicating, negotiating, and deliberating. This leads to us-them mentalities, good-vs-bad frameworks, and good-guys-vs-evil-bad-guys narratives. It’s quite easy to arrive at this point and even natural.

However to shed self-righteousness and moral authority, in some sense we have to be able to enter into some type of moral humility. In fact, as John Haidt says, the Dalai Lama’s moral authority probably comes foremost from his moral humility. It’s a beautiful example of receiving something (moral authority) by letting it go and not looking for it. People always confuse this issue and say, “if moral humility means not believing something is right or wrong, that’s wrong, and I’m not about to let go of what’s right to be wrong.” This misses the point, being morally humble doesn’t mean you do not believe anything or have no notions or conceptions about right and wrong. Moral humility, rather, is about how you hold onto those notions and conceptions and your treatment and consideration of others with differing notions and conceptions.

Learning to understand that people who disagree with you may have a reason for disagreeing with you other than just being evil people is a huge step to understanding their motivation and opening them up to understanding yours. This is what I mean by moral humility. Sure, you will find mentally insane people, evil people, sadistically hedonistic people. However, there are a lot of people who are doing things you consider wrong thinking they are right. In learning that and being willing to look at the world from their eyes, you do the world, yourself, and peace, a great deal of good. It’s something with which I still struggle and on which I am still working today.

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